After the highs of Mitre 10 Cup-level competition, it's back to the future for Steelform Wanganui tomorrow down in Masterton for the first of two non-first class preseason matches.
Wanganui coach Jason Caskey will look to put the wider squad out in the first line against Wairarapa Bush on the fast-running artificial turf at Memorial Park, giving several of the youngsters more of a chance to press their claims with South Canterbury looming for the start of the 2018 Mitre 10 Heartland Championship in two weeks.
Some of the changes will be necessities as second-five Penijamini Nabainivalu walked gingerly off the pitch at Hawera on Saturday and was still a little stiff at Tuesday training, while after equalling the WRFU record of five Ranfurly Shield appearances, veteran winger Cameron Crowley suffered rib cartilage damage and will need at least 2-3 weeks on the sideline.
One bright spot is backline general Craig Clare is all set to return, having been precautionary rested for the Taranaki game to get over the last of his niggling injuries, with Clare desperately unlucky to get hurt just before all three Shield challenges for Wanganui since 2016.
"Might be lucky to have him back next year, you never know," said Caskey.
Having had a taste of the big time, players like utility Josh Fifita, who was fizzing after his debut off the bench, is likely to get more game minutes, along with the young reserve forwards Dylan Gallien, Wiremu Cottrell and Peter Travis Hay-Horton.
Caskey will also look to make an accommodation for the likes of talented halves player Tyler Rogers-Holden and promising lock/flanker Jackson Campbell.
Loose forward Cade Robinson, who cracked the bench for Wanganui at the end of last season, has only just got back into running and will need a couple more weeks before he can resume contact training, likely meaning game time with the Development XV.
"I think they enjoyed themselves, and they'll be happy they put in a good show. It's always more enjoyable when you're competitive," said Caskey of the youngsters efforts against Taranaki.
Another committed performance in an August Ranfurly Shield challenge, as they did against Waikato in 2016, raises the interesting Fantasy Rugby scenario of how a full-strength Wanganui side would go against other professional teams.
The mandatory Shield challenge for winning the Meads Cup means Wanganui are always pitted against stronger sides – those in the top flight Mitre 10 Cup Premiership grade, and in the case of Canterbury the national champions.
But honest efforts on defence in 2016 and last weekend makes Caskey consider how his team would fare against the lower tier sides in the Championship grade, such as Southland, who were winless in 2017, or Hawke's Bay, who only won one game other than against Southland.
Facing certain teams in August who do not have the depth of a Canterbury or Taranaki "would be interesting", Caskey said.
"It might not be too big of a gap."
What Wanganui did learn against Taranaki is they need more structure in the outside backline defence, which was also targeted by Bay of Plenty during the 'Game of 3 Halves' on July 27.
Nabainivalu, centre Kameli Kuruyabaki and the debutantes in winger Harry Symes and fullback Shandon Scott don't quite have cohesion together yet and the home side pounced on that in Hawera.
"We'll fix that pretty easily, it was a little bit of a disconnect between second-five and centre, and then the winger being a little deep," said Caskey.
"I think Kameli learnt a fair bit during the game. He came right, to his credit."
After Meads Cup semifinal appearances in 2015-16, Wairarapa Bush fell off the pace last season with just one victory, despite a settled team and the inclusion of former All Black Piri Weepu.
They have a pretty quick turnaround tomorrow after playing a Tuesday night fixture against the New Zealand Army team at Memorial Park.
Despite leading 21-5 at halftime, Wairarapa Bush were pushed by the soldiers in the second stanza, losing 43-38.
Kickoff in Masterton tomorrow is at 1.30pm.